It wasn’t your typical email. The subject line said, “I need your help please.” It was from a young Saudi Arabian doctor who I got to know a few months ago as we sat next to each other on an airplane.

I had given my business card to her, urging her to contact me if I ever could be of assistance. She emailed me a month ago to tell me that she would be applying to do a medical residency at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) among other US schools.

Since then, she and I have been corresponding fairly regularly as I have connected her with some UAB doctors who I know well through my work as Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation.
I also have brought my Federation staff colleague Samantha Dubrinsky into the loop, knowing that these two young women are about the same age and, I thought, they would hit it off. So this urgent email from my new friend got my attention. “I am writing you this email to ask you a small favor please. I am in the middle of a frustrating situation right now and I need your help,” she wrote.

“Remember I told you that the process for applying for medical residencies begins on September 15, which is today. The thing is I have lost my personal statement and I need it for the application. It was deleted for whatever reason, and I can’t find the original one on my laptop. I had to rewrite a new one today, and I’ve been working on it since this morning. I have tried to write what I remember from my past one but it won’t be the same,” she explained.

My Saudi friend knew from our Birmingham Jewish Federation website, my Times of Israel blog and some Federation newsletter stories I had sent her that I had writing and editing experience. So that’s why she was reaching out to me for help. “I need your help to proofread it and edit it if it needs anything please!” she explained. “I was going to send my application today, early this morning, but this happened. Please let me know if you could help me and I will send you the new copy. I would really appreciate it.”

I, of course, immediately said yes and told her that I would like to bring Samantha into the mix as well, given that Samantha has blossomed into an excellent writer and editor herself. This new friend, who had also corresponded with Samantha over the past few weeks, was delighted that Samantha would be helping. I asked her to send it to us as quickly as possible and promised that Samantha and I would work on it together and get it back to her immediately, which we did.

What she had sent us was an essay that would turn out to be fascinating and inspiring reading. It gave me more insight into how this young Muslim woman became a doctor in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Islamic culture that limits opportunities for women, and what her ambitions and dreams were professionally and personally. She wrote about wanting to be a peacemaker in the world and doing it as a doctor — healing minds and hearts by healing bodies. It was very moving and impressive.

Her ideas were outstanding, though, because English is not her native language, she needed some help with sentence structure, some word choices and general polishing. I went through it carefully and marked it up for her. As I was about to send it back to her, I joked to Samantha that I hoped all of my suggestions wouldn’t scare her — “Or make her cry!” Samantha added, teasing me (I hope) about my reputation as a tough editor.

My email back to her began with, “Don’t get ‘scared’ by all of our suggestions. What you wrote is really good — we are just suggesting ways to polish it.” The Saudi doctor received my email and responded immediately with, “Thank you. I’ll try not to be scared given the fact that I am already freaking out a little bit! I am going to start working on your suggestions.”

We also had urged her to call us once she made all the changes so that we could review them verbally. We didn’t make a lot of small talk when she called, knowing that she was facing an impending deadline. Nonetheless, she was wonderfully warm and upbeat and very grateful for our help.

We finished our phone conversation, pledging to stay in touch. Right after we hung up, Samantha turned to me and said, “You know, Richard, she was different than I expected — she sounded just like me!” She was warm, and effervescent — yet determined. Yes, just like Samantha.

Coincidentally, though I like to say there are no coincidences, Samantha and our Federation Assistant Executive Director Daniel Odrezin were planning to attend a program that night on Islamophobia — hatred and bigotry toward Muslims. Knowing that she would be going, Samantha and I reflected on the ironic juxtaposition between the program and us helping this young Saudi woman.

I know for a fact that growing up in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country historically hostile to Israel and Jews (though there are reports of these attitudes changing), this young Muslim woman never could have imagined that one day she would have friends at the Birmingham Jewish Federation so willing to help her.

Nor could I ever have imagined that one day I, as a Jewish Federation director, would receive this email from a Saudi, which my friend sent Samantha and me after we had helped her: “OMG!!! Thank you guys. You are awesome!! I am so blessed. I am speechless.”